In the Pawpaw Patch

A taste of the tropics in our own backyard

That was how Clevelander Harriet Keeler described the food-worthiness of the fruit of Asimina triloba in her popular guide Our Native Trees, And How to Identify Them, published in 1900. A native New Yorker, Keeler settled in Cleveland following her graduation from Oberlin College in 1870. Working as an educator in the area’s school districts, she also published a number of popular field guides.

Asimina triloba is colloquially known by several names. Most common is the name “pawpaw” or “papaw”—the latter is Keeler’s preferred spelling—and it was the pawpaw that I first turned to in her guide. I found her description of its fruit surprising and a little disconcerting. I very much enjoy the fruit. And since returning to the area and buying land in Geauga County, I have been establishing an orchard of grafted, named varieties hoping one day to peddle them at some area farmers market.

But pawpaws are not really known by any name at all. They are a “forgotten fruit.” Once widely eaten in the eastern United States, it has been nearly deleted from the American psyche.

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Keeler highlights pawpaw’s abundance in her neck of the woods, “… on the southern shore of Lake Erie.” True enough; the tree is fairly common throughout much of the deciduous forests of the eastern United States. Within that range, the pawpaw’s distribution is predictable yet spotty, mostly occurring along rivers and streams as stands of clones, the result of a tree’s tendency to sprout new stems from its spreading root system.

Despite its present obscurity in the United States, pawpaw enthusiasts—mainly foragers, rare fruit growers and breeders, nursery managers and botanists—like to point out the quintessential “Americanness” of the fruit. Along with its nearly exclusive U.S. range (a few stands occur in southern Ontario), pawpaw appreciation has been recorded by Native Americans, New World explorers, early settlers, Founding Fathers and several presidents.

Asimina triloba is one of the very few members of the botanical family Annonaceae that can tolerate freezing temperatures. Tropical people enjoy fruits produced from many other members of the so-called “custard apple” family, but the pawpaw is decidedly temperate—the seeds require a cold period in order to germinate. Where it occurs, the pawpaw is often locally referred to as the state “banana,” as in “Ohio banana.” This tendency reflects the tropical characteristics of the fruit. The flesh is the color and consistency of puréed banana and is aptly eaten with a spoon, like an avocado. The flavor is often described as some cross of banana, pineapple, papaya and mango.

Given the tropical ancestry of the pawpaw, it makes sense that those attempting to describe the fruit would naturally turn to the produce of the tropics for comparative reference. It’s a testament to the global food market: People living a few miles from a productive wild stand have never heard of a pawpaw and wouldn’t know what to do with one in hand. On the contrary, these same people can deftly remove the thick yellow peel of a tropical Asian fruit while driving to work. They can prepare a hot, stimulating beverage by grinding and steeping the roasted seed of an Ethiopian shrub. Fruits cultivated in and shipped from the tropics are routine; a local native fruit with tropical ancestry is a mystery.

In considering pawpaw’s anonymity, more important is the abandonment of foraged food. For most people today, foraged fruit might be an occasional opportunistic snack but not a legitimate, even important, source of nutrition. Along with pawpaw, many other once-foraged foods now gather in the basket of rural America’s recorded history. Chestnuts, mayhaws, elderberries, persimmons, hickory nuts, wild plums—the list is an ethnobotanist’s dissertation.

In thinking about why some foraged foods, like the pawpaw, are no longer eaten, I blame demographic changes of the U.S. population beginning at the close of the 19th century. And I blame the banana.

If I had to pick one fruit that satisfies the same gustatory cravings as the pawpaw it would be the banana. Bananas only became widely available in the United States around 1890, when sea captain Lorenzo Dow Baker made a bundle of cash selling 160 bunches he purchased on a dock in Jamaica, just before returning to New Jersey. The public’s willingness to pay extravagant prices compelled Baker to keep them coming. Production in Latin America was expanded and preservation and transportation techniques, by boat and rail, improved. Availability increased. Prices decreased. By 1910 the banana was the most popular fruit in the country.

Today around 80% of Americans are urban and they shop at grocery stores. A foraging expedition to get pawpaws might be a fun excursion. But the money saved in retrieving free pawpaws is trumped by the time and energy expended to arrive at a patch. Bananas cost little money and running to the store costs little time.

The stingy values of the global market simply favor some key characteristics of banana over pawpaw. First, bananas are freaks of nature, producing fruit with no viable seeds. Their waste of energy is our benefit, as it means the entire volume of fruit within the skin is ours to eat. Pawpaws, by comparison, have numerous large seeds.

Additionally, bananas, with their thick skins and our ability to control their ripening, arrive in stores looking pretty and almost ready to eat. And the long growing season of tropical climates means year-round banana production is possible. Thin-skinned pawpaws are produced for about a month. Despite Keeler’s apparent distaste for the pawpaws she tried, I’m confident they will be rediscovered and enjoyed again. For me the question is not if, or even when— it’s how? Will we pull flash-frozen pawpaw pulp-in-a-plastic bag from our grocer’s freezers? Will we drink it as a nutraceutical ingredient, in a beverage we may not even like, for some alleged marketed health benefit? Will we pick some up in April as a fresh fruit, shipped in from an Argentinian grower? Will we enjoy it for the month or so that our local farmers can supply it?

Who knows? Maybe after reading this you will spend the time and effort to follow a wooded stream in search of your own little pawpaw patch. By late September their fruits are out there for you to find. A final celebration of our tropical summer.